DG’s Column

Will there be enough food? Thoughts on the IPCC WGII report

The need for convergence between the climate change and sustainable development agendas
The WGII report provides a scientific basis that can help us towards an integrated approach.

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The IPCC’s Working Group II report on Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability was released earlier this week. A major effort by a group of over 300 scientists, this is one of the most important studies for all of us concerned with the future of humanity.

The report is important for several reasons:

  • It reconfirms that human-induced climate change is increasingly affecting us, and that the evidence is considerably stronger than before.
  • It creates a platform for finance and action to adapt to the changes.
  • It suggests that climate change adaptation is a matter of managing risks and changes to risks associated with climate variability and long-term climatic changes.

This last point is important. All human enterprises carry some elements of risk and the report focuses on how climate change will create both unique risks and changes to other sources of risk in different environmental services and economic sectors, such as terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, food security, economic growth and local decision-making.

I read the IPCC report from the perspective that two UN processes are working on agenda for our common future over the next 12 months. In December 2015, countries are set to adopt an overarching climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals process is taking place in parallel.

As I’ve said previously, we have an enormous opportunity to integrate actions created within these two processes. The WGII report provides a scientific basis that can help us towards such an integrated approach.

In this blog post, I focus on the food issues raised in the WGII report. After the release, considerable attention has been paid to the increased risks in food systems due to climate change (e.g. hereherehere and here). This has finally moved agriculture and food issues firmly into the climate debate, which is good. It will be important to have solid science inform a nuanced debate going forward.

In a later blog I will comment on how forest and forestry issues are integrated (or not) in the report.

Chapter 7 in the report “Food security and food production systems” rightly points to increased risks with agricultural production due to climate change – that climate trends have negatively affected wheat and maize production for many regions and, to a smaller degree, rice and soybean yields. The results of analyses point to a very varied impact, with 2% yield decline per decade widely cited in the media.

At the same time it is important to see these climate change risks in context. Over the past 50 years, agricultural productivity has increased threefold or 1-2% annually. There seems to be little doubt that this trend continues due to new technologies, more effective investments and evolving demands and markets.

There will, however, be many challenges – not least to find ways to reduce the impact of food systems on the climate and environment. Let us not forget that as much as a third of our emissions origin in the land-based sectors, mainly related to food production. We therefore need innovation and reinforced investments in research and development towards climate-smart agriculture and sustainable landscapes.

In this context, some reflections on scale may be pertinent. Action towards adaptation, resilience and reduced vulnerability are largely local in nature and will need tailored priority settings across a wide diversity of locations, societies and landscapes. This is particularly true for agriculture and forestry where specific economic and ecological factors determine the best ways forward.

The next year will be crucial in achieving convergence between the climate change and sustainable development agendas

Peter Holmgren

The IPCC report is obviously global in nature, but takes some steps towards local priorities in Volume II, where information is provided by region, even if this is also at a very general level.

Decision making at national and local levels requires improved and more location-specific information about the physical aspects of climate change and climate related risks. These elements need to be integrated with impact assessments, adaptation and risk management studies and vulnerability assessments. Further, these decisions need to include a wide range of other priorities and aspirations. Climate change considerations can be viewed as an essential ingredient in all decisions aiming towards sustainable development, on all levels.

For this reason, the assessment of vulnerability, impacts and the adaptation needs is timely and we would all benefit if it was well integrated in the emerging discussions around the SDGs.

The next year will be crucial in achieving convergence between the climate change and sustainable development agendas. The WGII report strongly supports the need for harmony between these two processes and provides a solid evidence base for integrating climate-related actions to a higher degree with other political priorities.

I certainly don’t agree with some current speculations of famine and Malthus-being-right-in-the-end as alluded to by New York Times. Further, framing climate change as a food issue as the Guardian has done may be opportune, but could also put the political spotlight to the wrong place.

If we get the overall priorities right, invest in innovation and research, and include climate change in the equation, then I am convinced there will be enough food for all.

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